On New Year’s Day, we welcomed in 2018 with the usual pomp and celebration here in the United States and around the world.
In my hometown of Philadelphia, PA welcoming in the New Year means one thing above all others. That would be the annual Mummers Parade.
For the uninitiated, the Mummers Parade is one of the greatest spectacles of color, music, dancing, and merriment that you could ever enjoy. The vast majority of it, and the most fun, takes place right out on the streets of Philadelphia.
Mumming, a form of colorful costumed performance, is a tradition that dates at least back to England in the 13th century. In both England and Ireland in the mid-1700’s, costumed Mummer’s plays were put on, and this custom spread to America when we were still just a colony.
The following is from an article for the old Riverfront Mummers written by John Francis Marion back in 2007:
“Local tradition has it that as early as the 1620s the Swedes and Finns in Tinicum – now a southwestern section of the city – celebrated the New Year by shooting off guns (they were often called “the shooters”), banging pots and pans, and making a clamor as they visited neighbors after Christmas.”
By the 18th century, Mummery had come to Philadelphia in the form of street parties and parading around Christmas time. These would merge with other working class celebrations over the next century or so, becoming a celebration of the arrival of the new year.
By the 19th century, city leaders were looking to organize the rowdy New Year’s Day street celebrations. The city pushed for the marchers to organize into groups, each with leaders who would be held responsible for the actions of their individual group.
The first official Mummer’s Parade was held on January 1, 1901. Over the next few decades the costuming and musical presentations became much more elaborate and sophisticated. For the longest time it was racially and sexually segregated, but those traditions (prejudices?) were dropped decades ago.
The parade has grown into an annual signature New Year’s Day celebration on the streets of downtown and South Philly. Part of the celebration, the Fancy Brigades, have even been moved indoors. This allows more intricate and artistic presentations, and also guarantees a show for tourists on January 1, just in case poor weather postpones the rest of the day-long parading.
Many who marched in the Mummer’s Parade passed down the marching tradition to their children. Those traditions have many times resulted in generations of a particular family not only taking part in the parade, but also remaining as staples within a particular organization.
Into this backdrop stepped Jake Kudrick on New Year’s Day. In many ways, Jake is a typical 6th grader. Family, friends, school, video games, TV, music – you know the lifestyle.
His family story is also one that is familiar to many Philly Mummer families. Jake’s dad, Teddy Kudrick, was Captain of the Duffy String Band for the last 32 years. Before that, it was Teddy’s dad, Henry Kunzig, who had captained Duffy for 26 years. Jake has been marching alongside his dad since his first parade, when he was just 11 months old.
On October 19, tragedy struck Duffy and the Kudrick clan when Teddy died suddenly of a massive heart attack at home in Nether Providence Township, Delaware County. He was just 52 years old. You can imagine the emotional devastation that this brought to young Jake and his family.
There was a funeral, and the many arrangements that requires. And then perhaps the hardest thing of all, an attempt to return to life. To get back into school and activities and friends, all while dealing with the sudden hole in your family and your life.
As a practical matter, Duffy had a sudden problem as well. Their leader was gone, and the Mummer’s Parade was right around the corner. As with every Mummer’s club, there is an officer hierarchy. A decision had to be made as to whether they would march at all. And if so, who, if anyone, would captain the club in Teddy’s place?
“Teddy was always going to have Jake be the successor, I guess you can say, to the throne,” club president Charlie Kochensky told Rick Kauffman of the Delaware County Daily Times. “But we expected two or three more years when Jakey was a little taller.“
Duffy made the decision to march. Not only that, but the club also decided to continue the tradition and pass the captaincy down to Jake, who was serving an apprenticeship as co-captain. He would step into his Dad’s role, and thus become the youngest string band Captain in Mummer’s Parade history.
“I know he would rather still be co-captain, and still have his dad with him, but I think he’s going to surprise some people with how he’s able to pull this off,” Jake’s mother, Colleen Kudrick, told Kauffman.
Not only did Jake pull it off, he wowed the crowd at City Hall, as well as everyone watching Duffy’s performance on television. He truly led the club during their “Wiz Wit” presentation, exhibiting the showmanship and leadership required of every good captain.
As the performance ended, Jake threw his hands into the air in celebration, a wide smile bursting across his face. The crowd roared in appreciation, and the band marched proudly off, knowing they had done Teddy’s memory well.
But Jake wasn’t finished. He took a bouquet of flowers over to a box painted onto the street, and laid it down in a final touching memorial to his father.
The realization of what just happened began to wash over him, and as Jake turned to walk off the staging area he began to break down in tears, overwhelmed by the moment. Anyone who was watching and who knew the circumstances was sharing in those tears. It was genuinely incredible and emotional.
Back at the Duffy clubhouse, word was received that they had finished in 9th place. This marked the first Top 10 finish for the club in anyone’s memory. And young Jake? He tied for 4th place Captain in a category populated with veterans having decades of parading experience.
“If you want to see someone his age with the moxie he has, you’re going to have to go a long way to find another one like him,” said Kochensky per Kauffman.
And even though we’re just a couple of days in, the year 2018 is going to have to go a long ways to find a bittersweet tear-jerker to match the moment provided by Jake Kudrick and the Duffy String Band on New Year’s Day.